How decades of disinformation about fossil fuels halted U.S. climate policy Most Americans want the government to tackle climate change, but decades of industry lobbying and misinformation have repeatedly worked together to prevent meaningful action.

How decades of disinformation about fossil fuels halted U.S. climate policy

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Now to President Biden's push to tackle climate change. It has broad public support. Even a majority of Republican voters want the government to do more. And action is considered key since this country has contributed the most to global warming. But historically, the U.S. has repeatedly failed to enact ambitious climate policy. NPR's Jeffrey Pierre takes a look at why.

JEFFREY PIERRE, BYLINE: The Biden administration came into the White House with the most ambitious climate agenda in the last 25 years. But the heart of that plan was cut out after opposition by Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from the coal-rich state of West Virginia. Manchin also gets the most donations from the oil and gas industry out of everyone in Congress. He told CNN the reason why he's against Biden's plan is because it pays utilities to invest in renewables, something they're already doing.

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JOE MANCHIN: It makes no sense to me at all for us to take billions of dollars and pay utilities for what they're going to do as the market transitions.

PIERRE: Scientists say the problem with the transition that Manchin is talking about is that it isn't moving fast enough. The world needs to reduce carbon emissions a lot quicker to avoid the worst of climate change. But every time the U.S. has tried to take sweeping action on carbon pollution, it's been defeated by corporate pushback and a very strategic misinformation campaign. The first time was in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol was an international treaty that world leaders drafted to slow global warming. But corporate groups like the Global Climate Coalition, led by the oil industry, pushed doubts about the science.

Kert Davies runs a watchdog group called the Climate Investigations Center.

KERT DAVIES: We have internal meeting notes from the Global Climate Coalition in the 1990s, where they're discussing how to stop people from worrying about the impact of climate on people's health.

PIERRE: In the end, the U.S. backed out of the Kyoto Protocol because it didn't include developing countries or huge carbon emitters like China, and that idea was used strategically by the industry coalition.

DAVIES: They ran full page ads many, many times in 1997, attacking the treaty because, in their words, it's not global, and it won't work. And they were basically using a nationalistic argument to fight it back.

PIERRE: The next big climate push was during the Obama administration in 2009. Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman proposed a program called cap and trade to push polluting companies to reduce their emissions. Waxman said the idea had support from the business community, so he thought that Republicans would sign on, too. But there was a major shift happening in the GOP to reject climate science at the time. Waxman remembers a conversation with Republican Congressman Joe Barton.

HENRY WAXMAN: I said to him, when I became chairman, let's work together on a bipartisan basis to address this problem. And his answer to me is, why should I want to address a problem I do not think exists?

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KEITH MCCOY: Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes.

PIERRE: That's Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy. Just this year, he was caught on a sting video talking about the company's strategy to oppose climate action.

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MCCOY: Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that's true. But there's nothing illegal about that. You know, we were looking out for our investments.

PIERRE: ExxonMobil has disavowed McCoy's comments and fired him. NPR also spoke to the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's biggest lobby. Aaron Padilla, API's director of climate, says their position has evolved.

AARON PADILLA: I think that our position today representing API member companies is in step with where citizens and the private sector and policymakers want to take the country in terms of climate policymaking.

PIERRE: In a lot of ways, the Biden administration has learned from the political pushback that previous administrations got when they tried to tackle climate change head on. Jesse Jenkins is an energy systems engineer at Princeton University. His research helped shape Biden's proposals.

JESSE JENKINS: This is not a climate bill. This is the economic agenda of the Biden administration.

PIERRE: That means that there's dozens of policies that weave climate in, like more charging stations for electric cars, funding for low-income solar projects and other measures to help rural America adopt cleaner energy. But climate scientists say even if they were all to pass, the U.S. still has a long way to go to zero out its carbon emissions by 2050. On top of all of this, anything that isn't written into law is at risk of getting reversed, like President Trump did with Obama-era climate rules.

Michael Mann is a geoscientist. He wrote a lot of the reports that oil industry special interest groups spent so much time attacking.

MICHAEL MANN: We lost decades of opportunity. We could've prevented much of the damage that we are now seeing play out today.

PIERRE: Things like intense flooding, wildfires and storms. At the climate summit in Glasgow next week, Biden is going to have to make the case that the U.S. has a credible plan to tackle climate change. But right now, whatever those plans turn out to be, they will likely not go far enough or fast enough.

Jeffrey Pierre, NPR News.

MCCAMMON: And we want to note that Exxon is one of NPR's contributors and did not respond to a request for comment. You can read more about this history at npr.org.

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